This week, a look at small business owners upskilling themselves and the impact those experiences have had on them personally, as well as their operations.

Kim Voon is the founder of Auckland-based online marketing agency Insight Online.

What kind of education did you seek out for yourself when you first set up your own business three or so years ago?

It wasn't something I did right away. I had a few months of blissful ignorance where I was self-employed, but not really running a business. I could have carried on like that for a while but I was motivated to build a team; it was when I hired my first employee that the cracks started to appear.

I needed to know about wages, PAYE, training and development, processes and systems. Reading books and Googling were great but experience was something I was really lacking. If there's one thing from my first year in business that I'm proud of, it's realising that I needed help to get where I wanted to go.

What kind of help or education did you first reach out for?

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At that point I was working with my first employee, but we were really busy, and in my day-to-day consulting work I couldn't find time to think about the business. It seemed quite logical to get a business mentor, so I signed up to the Business Mentors programme - they came up first when I Googled the topic. It was cheap and it seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water.

My mentor, Chris Fulford, blew my mind. We met once a month and were in contact more regularly. Sometimes he'd give me 'homework' assignments. He taught me how to look at my business objectively, how to break down my business into parts for analysis and asked me tough questions about each part. Chris was amazing and I'll always be grateful to him.

What did you do when that mentoring finished?

Because of that experience I got an idea of the skills I needed to learn to run a business - all of which I felt I didn't have! It was like I needed to go back to school. That's when I started looking around for small business courses. Through [business networking group] BNI I learnt about a trial course that was being run by Lisa Mandic through the EMA [Employers and Manufacturers' Association] called The Owner Manager's Toolkit.

I felt like it was just what I needed at the time - it touched on all the topics I wanted to learn about - and I'd also heard good things about Lisa from BNI members. It ran over 14 weeks, and the class met one night a week for two-and-a-half hours.

COMING UP: Brand partnerships can be a powerful way for businesses to leverage off each other, so what are some local examples of brands from different small businesses teaming up? Why and how have they done this, and what impact have those partnerships had on both businesses?
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What impact did it have on you as a business owner and on your business?

As a business owner, the biggest impact was a huge boost in confidence that I was doing enough of the right things. It also helped that it gave me a group of business owners that I could discuss challenges with. In terms of my business, it added a lot more structure in pretty much every area. I've now got a better feel for what's going right and what's not, and if not, how to find a solution.

Some of the tangible things I implemented in the business as a result of doing that course are six-month, two-year and five-year plans; sales and leads tracking; marketing plans; and documenting and systemising business processes.

Before doing the course I felt a bit lost, going wherever my situation at the time demanded. Now I've got a strong vision and clear plan of how to get from where I am to where I want to go.

What's your focus now in terms of further education or upskilling yourself as a business owner?

I'm focusing more on sales and marketing now. There was an element of sales in the EMA course, but I've also done a free course with ANZ on sales and I'm looking into more sales courses. For marketing, I do a mix of networking and content marketing, which is starting to gain some momentum. I'm also a member of BNI, Auckland Chamber of Commerce and meet regularly with suppliers and partners.

I've learned my personal limit is about 14 sales meetings per week. After that, I get a bit too burnt out to give each person the attention they deserve. My strategy is to invest in relationships with good people and so far, I think it's working out well. In my first year in business I had 10 leads, 14 in the second year and 39 in the third year, so it's taken a huge step up.

How about some of the more informal things you do to educate yourself as a business owner?

I'm a fanatical reader so I've read a lot of business books like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Think and Grow Rich, The E-myth and The Lean Startup. I also have people that I look up to, and I try to keep up to date with them on Twitter and follow their blogs. I'm a huge fan of Wil Reynolds, Rand Fishkin and Ian Lurie, who run really successful online marketing companies in the US, and closer to home I'm a big fan of Rod Drury.